Is opera still opera when it is being sung by people in jeans? Having just seen ENO’s dramatic production of Messiah, I’m not sure. The full oratorio, not just the first section as is often the case for Christmas renditions, been staged here by Deborah Warner, with the ENO Chorus and Orchestra and also a complement of supernumaries from the population of Westminster. The libretto, from the King James Bible, follows the life and death of Jesus but Warner has superimposed a visual narrative following a modern-day community, challenging our well-established familiarity with Handel’s score.
The staging just did not work for me: the action has been located in modern-day London with a backdrop of city life racing by and as we begin, we see a community going about its daily activities. Quite what this has to do the birth of Jesus was not immediately clear, and did not become any clearer as we progressed through the first movement, especially whilst there was a woman who I assumed to be Mary giving birth here, but also an older boy who I thought was Jesus running around making everyone smile at the same time. Additionally, the use of everyday modern dress gave the strong impression of the rehearsal room rather than a show. And finally, if we were to believe that this was a modern-day community onstage, I have no earthly idea where the random modern dance sequences then fitted in, they were just a distraction too far.
It does looks good, the opening suspended golden sunflowers being a particularly arresting image, and the ever-changing projections of classic paintings depicting the life of Jesus provided nice visual cues. The orchestra were brightly conducted by Laurence Cummings and what I heard of the soloists was largely good, Sophie Bevan delivered the soprano arias well and Brindley Sherratt and Catherine Wyn-Jones were both in great form. But unfortunately, this Messiah just wasn’t engaging enough to keep me there until the end, or indeed past the first intermission: sometimes, the classics should just not be tinkered with.